Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Patrick Robbins lives in Maine. He’s been writing for Cover Me since 2011. Of all his Cover Me essays, he especially likes his John Denver tribute review and his curation of Ramones Week.
It’s been great writing and editing for Cover Me, not just because I like cover songs so much, but because it’s led me to discover so many great ones I never would have heard otherwise. My thanks to Ray for taking me on, and to all of you for reading what I have to say about my finds. Here are ten of them that I’ve made over the years, which all struck significant chords in my life for various reasons…
Husker Du – Eight Miles High (The Byrds cover)
Said it before, say it again – this is my favorite cover song of all time. I’m such a fan of Husker Du and of what they accomplished; what makes this song special to me is its being the first time I heard a hardcore band cover a well-known song without any attempt to punctuate it with “hey, you know this song – well, listen to how different it sounds as hardcore!” irony. This is a cover that MATTERS. Every player is focused, and Bob Mould’s vocal still makes me shiver with its pain and defiance. Whatever the Byrds were thinking when they wrote it, it means nothing next to what Husker Du did with it. Thank God this cover exists.
The English Beat – Tears of a Clown (Smokey Robinson & the Miracles cover)
In my youth, i.e. the day before yesterday, I would think of the soundtrack of my life. C’mon – didn’t you? Haven’t you ever scored moments of your existence, both embarrassing and uplifting, to an especial favorite from your tape collection? Well, I sure did. There was a period where I could only see my life as a romantic comedy, and this was definitely on the soundtrack. It was originally a single, but in America, I.R.S. stuck it onto I Just Can’t Stop It, which to my mind marks the second-best moment of label interference in music history (first: Capitol padding Magical Mystery Tour into a full album). Even the sequencing is perfect. So’s the song – a hyper cover that makes it impossible not to move as you hear it. Definitely a runner-up in my greatest-covers-ever list.
The Kingsmen – Louie, Louie (Richard Berry cover)
Whenever there’s a greatest-covers-ever list on the web – and believe me, there have been a lot – “Louie Louie” often gets forgotten. This despite the fact that it’s well known to be a cover, that Richard Berry released his version six years before the Kingsmen, and it had been a favorite at Pacific coast parties in the years between. The Kingsmen made a few changes – they altered the beat from 1-2-3-4, 1-2 to 1-2-3, 1-2, and they had Jack Ely sing into a distant microphone with a mouth full of braces. Result: “the dirtiest song of the sixties,” with both bawdy teens and their upset parents convinced Ely was singing something obscene, even if nobody could quite agree on what. I guess we forget it’s one of the greatest covers for the same reason we forget we’re breathing – it’s just a part of who we were.
The Kingsmen version was featured in National Lampoon’s Animal House, which was my first rated R movie. I saw it at an actual toga party, where it was playing for background color. While everybody else was getting their high school action on, I was sitting alone in a corner of the room, glued to the TV. I wasn’t going to miss what I already knew was one of the most significant comedies of the 20th century. To this day I’m not one iota sorry.
Mark Lizotte – I Write the Songs (Barry Manilow cover)
Bill Zehme wrote a wonderful piece about Barry Manilow for Rolling Stone (don’t miss the part where Barry, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Joel have a prefame dinner) that starts, “When your name is a punch line, you live in hell. Barry Manilow lives in hell.” True dat, as the kids these days say (they do still say that, right?). There’s nothing about ’70s MOR Barry that’s not funny in some way or other. I’d say “Sorry, Barry, but it’s true,” but I’m not sorry, and I’m not telling him something he doesn’t already know.
But magic can be made of his music – or, in the case of “I Write the Songs,” music that’s associated with him. You see, ironically enough, he didn’t write the song; Bruce Johnston, faux Beach Boy (who denies it was about Brian Wilson), gets the credit for that. It was sung by other laughable ’70s icons David Cassidy and The Captain & Tennille before Barry got a hold of it. But what really caught my imagination is what Mark Lizotte from Diesel did with the song, turning it into a slide blues that’s genuinely powerful and moving. How, I don’t know. But this is one of those covers that helped me to understand that just because I didn’t like a song didn’t mean the song wasn’t well written and couldn’t be amazing given the right interpreter. Thank heaven “I Write the Songs” found just the right person to sing it.
Van Halen – You Really Got Me (The Kinks cover)
Van Halen took one of the all-time great rock songs, set it on fire, and danced in the flames. With all instrumentalists in peak form and David Lee Roth knowing most of the words, they change the power of “You Really Got Me” from caveman crunch to headlong exuberance, from a charging linebacker to a soaring wide receiver, from dam to “Day-um!” Dave Davies’ immortal riff and his solo (“Maybe it’s not much of a solo,” his brother Ray said, “but it’s a beautiful eight or nine seconds”) are left gasping behind/at what Eddie Van Halen uncorks here. This, to me, is the cover that best exemplifies the sheer joy that comes from artists taking a well-known song and making it their own. I should also note that it’s really good for doing sit-ups to. And that Elvis Stojko did a great ice skating routine to it at the Olympics. Oh, and that it’s the background music to the greatest commercial ever made.
The Band – Don’t Do It (Marvin Gaye cover)
How much do I love The Last Waltz? I once got on a bus and traveled three hours to see it in a Boston theater. I was supposed to meet a girl there, but she never showed up. I didn’t feel shortchanged. One guy brought a bottle in with him and sang along with the songs at full volume; he left when Neil Diamond showed up, and he never came back. Anyway, great to see it on the big screen with an audience.
This is the song that begins the movie and ended the concert. I didn’t know it was a cover the first time I heard it – Marvin Gaye’s original was tremendous, but something about the Band’s version hit my gut in a way that Gaye’s smooth soul never could. What was it? Levon Helm and Rick Danko yelling the lyrics? Robbie Robertson’s guitar solo? The horns blasting away behind the Band? Whatever it was, I wish it could have gone forever and not had to say goodnight, goodbye. (The studio version and the Rock of Ages version are both pretty damn great too.)
R.E.M. – See No Evil (Television cover)
My first concert was R.E.M., Tax Day ’89, on their Green Tour. I knew from reading about them that they covered “See No Evil” by Television, but at that time I hadn’t yet heard the original. I went with my brother (who waved at Mike Mills and was thrilled when Mike pointed back at him), and about a minute into R.E.M’s last song of their second encore, Michael Stipe sang the chorus: “I understand all / Destructive urges / They seem so perfect / I see / I see no / Evillll…” That’s when I turned to my brother and yelled, “Josh! It’s Television!” I remember feeling like I had a secret that most of the audience didn’t know – namely, that this wasn’t a R.E.M. song (my first live cover song, and one that R.E.M. played very well, may I add) – even if I didn’t know the original very well. P.S. – I made up for any lost cool cred a few songs later when I immediately recognized their shambling show-closing cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Afterhours.”
Mike Watt – Maggot Brain (Funkadelic cover)
My brother’s the best bass player in Maine. For years he played in a band with a guitarist named Ian, who was pretty damn great himself. Sadly, Ian died at the age of 27. It was a truly devastating loss. I wanted to reach out to my brother, but I wasn’t sure I could come up with the right words. So I sent him a YouTube video of Mike Watt’s cover of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain.” “Thanks, Pat,” he wrote back. “It’s how I feel.”
The original was mostly a long guitar solo by Eddie Hazel, who George Clinton famously instructed to “play like your momma just died.” The Watt remake features J Mascis soloing, and from that first wrenching note, he gets that heavy pain and sadness down. For me, this will always be the song I go to when I want to remember how music can say things that people can’t.
Scott T. Appel – Bird Flew By (Nick Drake cover)
I’m proud/snobby enough to say that I knew about Nick Drake before that VW commercial that got him the audience he’d long deserved. I have a friend in New Jersey that I’ve been exchanging mix tapes with for over a quarter century now, and one year he sent me “Way To Blue.” At the time, I was just starting the transition from cassettes to CDs, and eased in by getting only box sets (if you’re going to commit, commit). Thus did I get Fruit Tree, the box set that featured Nick Drake’s three CDs and a collection of outtakes as a fourth CD.
At the time, I was working at Barnes & Noble. One of my fellow employees, hearing me raving about Pink Moon, loaned me Nine of Swords by Scott Appel. He had decoded Drake’s tunings and recorded some of his songs, including many unreleased ones that Drake’s parents had given him access to (that’s how good he was). “Bird Flew By” was the first song on Nine of Swords, and I’ve chosen it here to represent the whole album.
I loved the album, and got in touch with Appel to tell him so. (By the way, I heartily recommend you do the same whenever an artist moves you; I’ve gotten nice responses back from Jim Bouton, Dave Barry, Mary Lou Lord, and many others who were very happy to hear from me.) He responded with a personal note of thanks and an offer to get more of his CDs, which I took him up on. He was dead a couple years later of heart disease, but his music still survives. You should listen to it.
Ray Charles – Yesterday (The Beatles cover)
I had to include at least one Beatles cover in this list, and while there are others that I like better (“Getting Better” by the Wedding Present springs to mind), I’m going with Ray Charles’ cover of “Yesterday.” It’s famously among the most covered songs in 20th century music, let alone in the Beatles’ canon, and the first time I played Ray Charles’ version, I can safely say I went in with no expectations of anything revelatory.
Then, partway through the bridge, Ray shouted, “WAIT A MINUTE!” I stopped what I was doing and sharply turned my head to the CD player, wondering what happened and what he was about to say. This, from a song that I believed couldn’t hold any more surprises. Suddenly I was listening to the song in a way I hadn’t listened to a song in a long time. You might say I wasn’t half the man I used to be.
That’s what a quality cover does for me – it allows me to be surprised by the familiar, and for me there’s no greater feeling in the world. I associate it with comedy, poetry, falling in love, and – thanks to artists like Ray Charles – the very best cover songs.
That WAS the greatest commercial ever made! Excellent choices, great piece!
I agree with Husker Du at #1. I believe the Eight Miles High cover may have been a response to lazy journalists who pigeon holed the band as “neo-psychedelic.” They took a psychedelic classic and shredded it with a genuinely angst-fueled abandon. They essentially tore the song to pieces and dropped the mic. Neo-psychedelic my ass!
I would put Jimi Hendrix, Star Spangled Banner as a tie for 1st place.
Your description of VH’s cover is the best description of a cover song I have ever read. (And, “David Lee Roth knowing most of the words…” BRILLIANT!)